[Ancient Faith Radio; June 2, 2008]
Frederica: The wheels are turning on the pavement and we’re hurtling north-westward. [Laughter] I’m making this sound like a dramatic story here. We’re on I-795, hitting the pavement, as Colleen Oren, choir director at Holy Cross Church, intrepidly, courageously, and bravely drives her car forward, westward, into the cold. It’s sort of a chilly morning today. Colleen is one of my prayer partners, and so is Ina O’Dell who is sitting next to her in the front seat. Shamassey Ina, the wife of our deacon, Mark O’Dell. And I thought, now that we’re all trapped together in this one car for half an hour to get out there to the restaurant—we’re going out to a restaurant, sort of a country restaurant, and a fair trade store that’s nearby. Now that we’re on this expedition, I wanted to corral Ina and have her tell me about something. Ina and Mark went to Rome - it was something related to his work, wasn’t it? What was it that he was going for?
Ina: He’s just a US government employee, and he had some meetings with other government officials in Rome, so I went along.
Frederica: Boy, that sounds fascinating. I could just never tire of hearing about government meetings in Rome. And he’s with the Treasury Department. So it has to do with money and numbers and things like that that are confusing to me. And you, as usual, you really studied Rome before you went. And you looked at all the maps and you did all the research and you even basically put together your own walking tour guide book. Now, I know a lot of Orthodox listeners, they hear Rome, and click, they stop listening because, you know, that’s Roman Catholic, that’s not us. But in fact, it *was* us in the earliest centuries. You know, the split didn’t happen until the eleventh century, and I recently learned that in Rome they still celebrated the liturgy in Greek until the fourth century. So this is our tradition as well. And if you go through Rome and you look at the old churches, you see icons. You see churches that look very much like our ancient Orthodox churches. So why don’t you launch in and just tell me whatever you think is interesting about the ancient Orthodoxy that you found in Rome.
Ina: It was interesting to us. I mean, again, we did have to do a lot of research to find these spots. You can catch a bus in the middle of one of the main piazzas that is a bright yellow bus that says, ‘Christian Rome,’ and it takes you to supposedly Christian sites, which undoubtedly they are, I don’t mean that, but I looked at the places they went and decided that it was more of a Roman Catholic spot and a pilgrimage for a Roman Catholic more. And they do go to some early sites, but the places I’d been digging up, and it really took some digging to see what was what, and I found through the internet and sacreddestinations.com and a bunch of places like this and I just began to read through, and of course information I found on the internet and even in the guidebooks turned out to be not all exactly accurate, as is often the case. Even the location of some buildings on maps that were marked were not actually where the building was. But for instance I talked to the concierge at our hotel, and it was a hotel right down off of the Roman forum and I said we wanted to go to the Milvian Bridge, and he thought this was the most bizarre thing in the world, because of course that was where Constantine had his victory over Maxentius, and that was the beginning of the Christian era, sort of, for us.
Frederica: That was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine was trying to conquer Rome so that he could be the emperor. And it was right before, the night before that battle, wasn’t it? When he saw the cross in the sky and heard, ‘By this sign you will conquer.’
Ina: Exactly. So I don’t know whether people know about this. Is this too obscure? So I had found on Google maps, I had zoomed in on the satellite view just so that I could see what it was in case I couldn’t figure out, and it was about four miles north of that center where our town was. And so I asked this man, he said, ‘What are you going there for?’ And I said, ‘Isn’t this Ponte Milvio? Is this not where Constantine-‘ Well, yes. He said he came down the Via Flaminia, which is the same street that’s still there.
Ina: And he said, ‘You’re wanting to go there?’ And I said, well, yes. And he said okay, so we ended up on this bus, it was very obscure, trying to find the place, and of course when we got there, because I had looked on the map, I wasn’t sure it was the right place because there was no sign, there was nothing. We had read that three of the arches were the original ones and that two of the arches of the bridge had been replaced.
Frederica: The arches of the original bridge are still there?
Ina: It seems amazing, although the Pantheon is still there, and it looks like any perfect building you’ve ever seen, and that’s way older, so it is interesting. So anyway, we crossed the bridge looking for any sign or a picture or something and nothing, nothing, nothing. The only thing was on top of the bridge was these men selling padlocks, which people were locking to these boards and writing your name on it; we have no idea what that was about, something to do with lovers or something, we don’t know. But padlocks for sale, many, many padlocks for sale on the Milvian Bridge.
Frederica: On the Milvian Bride, padlocks for sale. Oh boy, the inscrutable west, huh? [Laughter]
Ina: Anyway, the interesting thing, we walked down the Via Flaminia then for a few miles and through the city and everything, but you end up in this Piazza Venezia, which, it gives you immediately you come to mind of the Scripture of the way is narrow and few find it. There’s a something that you come upon, the famous wedding cake building that is -
Frederica: The Victor Emmanuel monument. It’s mid-nineteenth century, isn’t it?
Ida: It was built by the guy who was the first who kind of united Italy, where all the fiefdoms became one state after that. Anyway, pinched in between it and this Capitoline square where Michelangelo had been there’s this early church, and it’s St. Mary in the heavens or Santa Maria de Aracoeli and it’s the ‘altar of heaven,’ it used to be the highest place in the town.
Frederica: Rome is built famously on seven hills and this is the highest hill and the largest building on that hill.
Ina: Interestingly there’s these fabulously steep steps that used to be - it used to be really high. Now this wedding cake monument thing is garish and huge and bigger than it. But here’s these steps, very, very steep, you never see people going up, maybe one person. And the steps that are parallel to them going up into this square that Michelangelo developed, many, many people on those stairs and they’re right together. It’s kind of interesting that these very steep steps up to the church are empty. We went into this church and I had heard that there was a famous early icon in there, and of course when you walk in and they’re huge, empty churches without pews like we’re used to, but they had just Baroque and Renaissance frou frou everywhere, which, you know, you expect to see that in Rome.
Frederica: And as I remember they are also dark, that they don’t’ keep the lights blazing and sometimes you can put a quarter, so to speak, in a slot and it will turn on a light for 15 minutes.
Ina: Exactly. And in fact I think you pay one euro and you get one minute, so it’s inflation. So I went in there, and very foolishly, it was about the first church we went into, I was very overwhelmed with looking and looking and trying to figure out where in the world is this icon? I finally went to the gift shop (all the big places have a gift shop), and I went in there and I saw this icon and I thought, ‘This has got to be it.’ It’s the only Byzantine icon, and it’s this very stark looking virgin, so you know this is the one. And so I took it up to the guy, I don’t speak Italian, I said, ‘Where is this?’ And he looked at me like I was an idiot and he said, ‘It’s on the high altar.’ So I had actually missed it. [Laughter] So he took me out to show me, and I also was looking for some early mosaics that I had heard were in there. And he said, ‘You will not find these, they are very obscure. I’ll take you.’ So he took me around and around and back into a place that you can’t enter into, and then he took me around and showed me some of these early frescoes that they just discovered about two years ago. So you can find stuff, but you have to do some looking and be able to look beyond a lot of ornate stuff that we are not used to. But you head down the hill from that place and you’re right at the footsteps of the Mamertine Prison, which is supposedly where Peter and possibly Paul were put in jail and spent time there. And it was basically just a cistern in the earliest, earliest days, but when they had plenty of water from all of the fancy aqueducts system going into Rome, they needed more jails. So they got rid of this cistern, turned it into a jail, and they used to just drop people through the hole in the top. And you can see the grate where they would drop them through.
Frederica: There’s one like that in Jerusalem. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a cistern, a hole in the top. And they would drop people through and the theory is that’s where Jesus was kept the night before he was crucified. And there’s a figure on the wall. It looks like a man with his arms spread had lain back against the wall, and it’s just dark—just a stain on the wall. It’s one of those mysterious, perhaps miraculous things.
Ina: Well, similar things there. They’ve got a thing that looks like a post that Peter was supposedly chained to, a stone pillar thing. A really low ceiling and a little well that supposedly sprang up and that Peter baptized other inmates with him. So you head out from there and you’re looking across—something that I thought was the most interesting story. The thing that we know as the Roman Forum, there’s a bunch of forums, but the Roman Forum apparently was not even discovered until about 200 years ago, and it used to be called the cow field. And at one point some guy was looking across there and he heard all these monks singing and chanting.
Ina: Which seems strange to us, but that was the beginning. They knew. And the same with this jail where Peter was, people were going there, early pilgrims from the very earliest days. And it would be like some special spot but nobody knows why everybody is going there. Why is everybody going there? So they hear all these monks. Well, down in the forum, in the actual forum, there are two extremely holy places for the early church, and one is this St. Theodore’s, which in the not too distant past was given back to the Orthodox Church, so it’s now-
Frederica: Really? Wow.
Ina: It’s not St. Theodore’s and it’s a Greek church, the services are done in Greek. So we went to church there and saw a few things, and it was very good and it’s right in the actual Roman Forum. Across the way is this Church of St. Cosmos and Damian, and strangely we asked about this church because it was marked on one of my maps in two different locations, and we were sort of confused. So we asked the guide, the one that actually sends guides out to tell people all about the forum, ‘So which one is this building?’ He’d never heard of it. [Laughter]
Frederica: Oh no!
Ina: So we said, ‘It’s a church, and we’re trying to figure out what time it would be open,’ because not all of the kind of obscure churches are open all the time. The main Catholic churches are open, but many of them are closed in the middle of the day so you can’t get in. So we asked him and he said, ‘Well, I know nothing of this church. But if it is a church, you must ask God when it is open.’ [Laughter] So that was crazy. So we did locate that church as well. And you have to enter it from outside the forum; they’ve blocked up the entrance from inside the forum, you have to enter it from the street side. And there was a car parked in the narthex outside. [Laughter] So it was very strange. And again, you just had to do some wandering around; you wouldn’t have known to keep going deep into the place to actually find the church itself, the sanctuary and the nave. So we went in there and put our coin in, and here’s these beautiful early mosaics, all are very familiar to Orthodox people.
Frederica: Really? They’re early as in third, fourth century?
Ina: Absolutely, and fourth, fifth century. It’s surprising. They have some elements that we don’t see here; a lot of them, in almost every early church, they had these red and blue kind of horizontal clouds coming out of Christ which we don’t see now.
Frederica: No, gosh.
Ina: I was expecting them because I had read up on some internet sites about Orthodox things in Rome, and one professor was writing about this, that it was the early depiction of the second coming of Christ, all these bright colored clouds coming out from him. But anyway, most of them also had a little row of sheep underneath the icon, but almost every early church has this apse, a mosaic apse with all the gold and the Byzantine figures and the deisis with John the Baptist and the Theotokos or some rendering of the different apostles, or, you know whoever, Cosmos and Damian, such as that.
Frederica: We’re going to have to break and come back next week, because this is terrific. Thank you, Ina.